The Way of the Word

23. August 2011

RIP Loriot

Born November 12, 1923, as Bernhard Victor Christoph-Carl von Bülow (short: Vicco) in Brandenburg an der Havel; died August 22, 2011 in Ammerland.

Vicco von Bülow was born in 1923 as the son of a Major of the police. Actually, the von Bülows were old German nobility who can trace their line back until 1154. After the divorce of his parents, he and his younger brother lived with their grandparents, until the father remarried in 1932. After graduating school, he followed his father’s advice and studied art in Hamburg. Upon graduation, he worked as a graphics designer, and became a cartoonist in 1950. At this time, he chose the pen name of Loriot. His success as a cartoonist took some time, it wasn’t until 1954 that his work was collected in book form.

His breakthrough was when he started to present the TV show Cartoon in 1967. While his presentation was originally completely serious and straight, it eventually developed into one of the show’s comedic highlights. He also started to produce his own animated shorts for this German TV program. After designing the mascot for a German charity (the dog Wum), he got his own TV show in the 1970s. The short films from this program are still being re-run on German TV. One of the various activities he pursued during his career was conducting opera.

He officially retired from TV in 2006, giving the reason that the medium had become so short-lived that it was no longer possible to produce quality comedy for it.

It’s possible but exhausting to list the awards he won during his career.

So, what can I add to everything that is being said about Vicco von Bülow now that he’s dead? Basically, as someone who grew up laughing at his jokes, I can confidently state that Germany is no longer funny. The funniest German ever has left us. At least we can always look back on his jokes.

30. July 2011

Review: Witch Doctor #2

Publisher: Image Comics. Cover Price: $ 2.99. Written by Brandon Seifert. Art by Lukas Ketner

Dr. Vincent Morrow, the Witch Doctor, has a choice: take care of a Cuckoo Faerie infestation (a faerie that steals and kills human children and replaces them with her own offspring), or join Absinthe O’Riley on a creature hunt. The latter scares even Morrow, so he decides to handle the infestation. Which is a job he actually considers to be beneath him. Meanwhile, Abby’s hunt is successful, and when Morrow returns home, he finds a surprise monster in his office.

Witch Doctor is a comic that makes me cry: “Why didn’t I have that idea?” Because the idea is really simple: you take one part of House MD and one part Re-Animator, shake rattle and roll it, and you get the medical horror drama Witch Doctor.

Of course, as simple as that premise sounds… Well, the result is more than that. Far more. So much more that I’m convinced that Brandon and Lukas are really bugf*ck crazy.
Consider that we’re talking horror, and you’ll realize that it is a compliment. Because the creators take the idea of a medical/scientific approach to the supernatural and think it through, without shying away from the consequences. The result is a horror comic that is sick, bizarre and over the top fun. While Ketner’s art fails the Shooter Test (it is sometimes impossible to tell what goes on in a panel if you didn’t have the words), that is due to the nature of this beast, and not at all detrimental to the fun.

The characters are also wonderfully off-beat. Dr Morrow is Dr House as Jeffrey Combs might play him, his paramedic Erik Gast is the straight man to Morrow’s over the top approach to the situations they find themselves in. My main problem is the second assistant, Penny Dreadful. And not because I dislike the character. But she’s a scene stealer. Seifert and Ketner make her strange and mysterious, always leaving hints at her nature without explaining anything. The problem is that the character is so fascinating that she becomes a distraction when she is on-panel. Which, yes, is once more a back-handed compliment.

If you like horror, you owe it to yourself to buy this comic. Because it shows a completely new and original approach to the subject matter, with a ton of in-jokes and references to the more classic versions.

Verdict: Extremely recommended!

Review: The Mis-Adventures of Adam West #1

Publisher: Bluewater Comics. Cover Price: $ 3.99. Written by Reed Lackey. Art by Russell Dauterman.

Actor Adam West has problems: his values and ideas are out of fashion, and because he refuses to compromise them he doesn’t get any more work. But then something amazing happens: a strange amulet that he gets in the mail not only makes him young again, it also transports him into a spy adventure — which he eventually recognizes as one of the scripts he had recently rejected.

Like most of my generation, I have a soft spot for Adam West. Which is why I broke my rule of not spending more than $3.00 on any one comic, and impulse-bought this one. I was rewarded with a charming little story of a man who feels his time has passed, and who (apparently) is about to get the chance to prove everyone wrong.

The writing is competent and rather nostalgic. It manages to evoke sentiment in the reader — if you’re like me, you’ll feel with Adam West because you agree with him; if not, you’ll probably scoff at his old-fashioned notions. But you will react in some way.

The bad thing about this comic is the art. Invoking the Shooter Test, it’s servicable. You can tell what happens in each panel even if there were no words. But it is no more than that. The art is a bit too simple, too bland to excite. And frankly — if your comic is officially licensed by Adam West, then you should draw him in a way that the readers will recognize him even if you don’t say, “This is supposed to be Adam West.”

All in all, The Mis-Adventures of Adam West is a charming comic, and the only reason I won’t get the next issue is the price tag. I’ll keep an eye out for the TPB, though.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

Review: Marksmen #1

Publisher: Image Comics. #1 of 6 Cover Price: $1.00. Written by David Baxter. Pencis by Javier Aranda.

In #1 of Marksmen, we meet Drake McCoy, a Marksman for New San Diego in a postapocalyptic USA. Drake is out to fetch some tech for Dr. Heston, who (seems to be) in charge of New San Diego’s science division. While doing his looting, he is attacked by a clan of cannibals and rescued by fugitives from the city of Lone Star in what used to be Texas. The fugitives are on their way to New San Diego to warn them of an impending attack by the religious fanatics who run Texas, because Lone Star has run out of oil and now wants New San Diego’s tech to keep their civilization running.

Marksmen was an impulse buy. I figured, I can’t really go wrong for just $1.00.
I figured wrong.

After massive recession the United States government collapsed and a civil war erupted between the cities and states to keep any last resources to themselves. This destroyed our country’s infrastructure and most of its population… the Big Collapse.

Out of the ashes rose New San Diego, one a few cities that survived by cutting itself off from the outside world. Rebuilt by a roup of top scentists and protected by the Navy Seals stationed at the Coronado Navel Base, NSD became a technological utopia. Sixty years later the ancestors of those Navy Seals still protect the city as… the MARKSMEN.

That’s the intro from the inside cover. Spelling, grammar and word usage are diligently copied.
Notice the problem? If so, you clearly did a better job than the writer, editor and publisher of this comic. The lack of English language competency shows throughout the comic, in bad word usage, spelling and word balloons pointed at the wrong person (at least according to context).

The story and the characters are also rather derivative. The Marksmen, as shown here, are slightly reminiscent of Judge Dredd and his cohorts, and the first half of the story is borderline “Judge Mad Max vs. The Hills Have Eyes.” The only moderately original idea is that the scientific utopia, which going by the very few hints in this comics is something of a science-based military dictatorship, is about to go up against an invading religious-fascistic dictatorship.

The art is servicable. With some more practice, Javier Aranda might eventually get to be pretty good. As it is, his figures are stiff, and he relies heavily on stock poses. However, his art passes what I call the Shooter Test: you can tell what’s going on in each panel even without the words.

There are of course hints of problems and complications to come, but I know for certain that I’m not going to be around to read about them.

Verdict: Very Not Recommended!

29. July 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

USA 2011. Directed by Jon Favreau. Starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde. Runtime 118 minutes

A lone cowboy (Daniel Craig) wakes up a long way from home (or anywhere, for that matter). He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he came to be there. Which isn’t even the most bizarre thing he discovers; that would be the strange bracelet he wears on his left wrist. He eventually finds his way to the town Absolution, where at least some people seem to know them: the mysterious Elle (Olivia Wilde) and the local Sheriff, John Taggart (Keith Carradine). Actually, it’s from Taggart that the cowboy finds out who he is: Jake Lonergan, a wanted outlaw. Just as Taggart is about to ship Jake off to the judge in Santa Fe, they get a visit from Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), the rancher who rules the town with the proverbial iron fist. Dolarhyde wants not just his son back (who shares the prison coach with Jake), he also wants Jake because Jake stole his gold.
At this point, Absolution is attacked by UFOs who abduct a considerable part of the town’s populace. Those left behind form a posse to chase the UFOs and rescue their loved ones. Along the way, they encounter a gang of outlaws that Jake used to lead, and an Apache tribe that also has missing family. Together, they take the fight to the aliens, who turn out to be just an advance party that is here to check if the planet is suitable for looting and exterminating.

With cross-genre stories like this one, one of the main questions is which one it resembles more closely. In this case, Cowboys and Aliens is more the archetypical western movie with aliens tacked on. It’s a movie about hard men riding lonesome trails — which describes the movie’s feel. Not to disparage Craig and Ford, but both of them channel Clint Eastwood (at different points in his career) for their respective parts. And Olivia Wilde isn’t really as mysterious as she is supposed to be — at least in part, for me, because I couldn’t manage to wrap my head around the baggy pajamas she wears in half the movie. Terribly distracting, and not in a good way. On the plus side, they do manage to make it feel like a classic western, even if they go overboard on the western tropes.

And that is where Cowboys and Aliens fails: the tropes. The characters in this movie are mostly stock characters. Their adventure is a mix and mash of various western tropes, played straight. (When I did something similar in my own cross-genre novel Cowboys and Barbarians, I also stuffed it with tropes, but in a tongue-in-cheek way.) There are some bizarre elements put into the second act, but those seem to be added for their own sake instead of leading anywhere. In total, the movie feels overstuffed, in places it appears as if the writers wanted to use the awe-factor to distract from the movie’s flaws. Less awe-factor, here as everywhere it is applied, would have been more.
The aliens are familiar. If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens. The main difference is that (by necessity) they aren’t as invincible as those from Independence Day, Battle LA or Skyline. (I even entertained myself with the notion that all the three above and this movie all tell the story of the same alien invasion — they are all that similar.)
That means that any character who isn’t Jake Lonergan gets short shrift. When Dolarhyde bonds with the Sheriff’s grandson Emmett (Noah Ringer), it doesn’t work, because it’s really just a sidenote. The writers put some (metaphorical) loaded guns on the fireplace but don’t fire them (perhaps in earlier drafts of the screenplay?). Some character growth feels false because it doesn’t really develop naturally. And the showdown would have worked better if there had been more consistency — the aliens are bulletproof or not, depending on whether or not the writers want to kill the cowboy in question.

In summary: Cowboys and Aliens is an entertaining western with some sci-fi elements. You won’t leave the movie feeling that you’ve wasted your time. But you will leave the movie feeling that it could have been much much more. And by borrowing heavily from both other western and sci-fi movies, you never lose the feeling that you’ve seen all of this before.

Verdict: mildly recommended.

26. July 2011

Rory Williams is Badass

Within a short time, Doctor Who companion Rory Williams (otherwise known as Mr. Amy Pond) has shown himself to be the most badass character of the 21st century. Or any other century. I’m sure even the Doctor is at least a little bit afraid of him.

20. July 2011

Review: Captain America, the First Avenger

USA 2011. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper. Runtime: 125 minutes

In the first days of America’s involvement in WW2, frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately tries and fails to join the army. He is simply not fit enough. At one attempt, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a super-soldier program for the US government. Erskine considers Steve the perfect candidate and recruits him. The experiment is a success and turns the skinny little dude into a perfect specimen. Unfortunately, he will remain the only one, because Erskine is killed by a Hydra assassin.

As the only possible result of this experiment, Steve is considered too valuable to be sent to the front. Instead, he tours the country in order to drum up support for the war effort. But when Steve tours the front and discovers that his best friend Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) unit has been captured by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he goes off by himself and frees them. His success earns him a series of field assignments that cover the entire war.

During this time, Schmidt, whose nickname is Red Skull because of a deformity he got as a result of his participation in Erskine’s prototype experiment, has built Hydra into a fighting force, mostly because he managed to get his hands on a superweapon called The Tesseract. In the final days of the war, the Red Skull decides to eradicate the US. As his plane takes off, only Captain America can get on board to stop the Red Skull’s plan.

Captain America is a dramatic, movie, it’s an adventurous movie, Americans might even consider it a patriotic movie.  But at the heart of it, it is not an American movie. As in, you don’t need to be American to like the movie or the characters. Yes, Captain America dresses like the US flag, but the values he represents go beyond the US, and therefore the character can resonate with audiences all over the world. There is no patriotic flag-waving in this movie. And yes, that is a plus. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about people.

It is, of course, the story of Steve Rogers, who is willing to selflessly lay his life on the line for what he thinks is right and important. Be that standing up against bullies of all kinds and sizes, or just risking everything to save his friend. All the while remaining clueless about some other things, such as Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Chris Evans rises to the occasion, presenting a more nuanced and mature performace than I thought him capable of. It is as if here, for the first time, he was actually challenged to play against type, and he is up to the task.

It is, surprisingly, the story of Abraham Erskine, a German scientist in US exile, who also wants to do the right thing. Stanley Tucci puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the short time he has, he infuses Erskine with so much humanity and makes the character so very likable that you are honestly sad when he is assassinated.

It is, to a lesser extent, the story of the Red Skull, whose job is to be two-dimensionally evil and give Captain America something to fight. Hugo Weaving is a very good actor, but he is overqualified for this role, which doesn’t require much more than chewing scenery.

And on the fringes, it is the story of the Howling Commandos, an elite fighting unit; of Bucky Barnes; and of Tommy Lee Jones as Nick Fury in everything but name (since the character of that name is played by Sam Jackson). Dominic Cooper puts in a very fun performance as Howard Stark, so much so that I’d want him to take over as Tony Stark when Robert Downey’s contract expires.

The story itself is very simple, almost simplistic, but it makes up for that in adventure, fun and excitement. It works even better for comic fans, because they are likely to catch most (if not all) of the Easter Eggs, such as the cameo of the original Human Torch, and Matt Salinger’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo. (In the observation booth during Steve Rogers’s transformation.)

The special effects work fabulously. The most amazing one being skinny Steve Rogers, who is played by Chris Evans with the help of invisible (= not noticeable) CGI. The film is in 3D of course, but except for one moment (when Cap throws his shield at the audience), the 3D is (as usual) rather superfluous.

The downside: not enough Nazis. While the Red Skull starts out as a Nazi scientist, he disowns the Third Reich during his third appearance, after which it is all about Hydra. Apparently, Nazis aren’t evil enough anymore for a WW2 movie. While the logic behind this is obvious (Nazis might adversely affect merchandising sales, which must be avoided at all cost), it leaves a very sour taste.

All in all, however, Captain America is a very entertaining (although not very deep) movie. Joe Johnston is a hit-or-miss director, having delivered gems like Rocketeer and bombs like Jurassic Park III. Here, he is in Rocketeer mode.

Verdict: very recommended.

25. June 2011

RIP Peter Falk

Peter Michael Falk, born September 16, 1927 in New York, died June 23, 2011 in Beverly Hills, at the age of 83.

The actor Peter Falk was famous for two things. One of them being his glass eye, which he got after losing his right eye at the age of three. Which didn’t stop him from participating in team sports as a youth. He was actually considered a star athlete in high school. While the glass eye kept him from enlisting in the US armed forces during WW2, he did serve as a cook and mess boy in the merchant marines for a year and a half. After that, he initially signed up for Israeli army’s war against Egypt, but that war was over before the proverbial ink had dried. So he went back to university. Upon graduating, he tried to join the CIA, who rejected him because he had been a union member while in the merchant marines.

While working as an efficiency analyst for the city of Hartfort, he joined the local community theater. At the same time, he studied with Eva Le Gallienne; a class he lied to get into: Miss Le Gallienne only taught professional actors. When he was found out, and she told him he should be a professional actor, he quit his day job. Moving to New York, he became a successful stage actor. From 1958 to 1960, he also played small roles in movies.

His cinema breakthrough was the role of Abe Reles in the movie Murder, Inc. in 1960, for which he got an Oscar nomination. He got another nomination the following year for his part in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles. During the same period, he also did some TV work, which also got him award nominations. He won the Emmy in 1962.

In 1968, he accepted a supporting role in the Gene Barry TV movie Prescription: Murder, a role that had been rejected by Bing Crosby. Prescription: Murder was something original at the time: a murder mystery from the murderer’s POV. Falk was cast as Barry’s foil, the police detective Lieutenant Columbo.

(Pause for effect.)

Now, if you haven’t heard of Columbo, you’re probably from another planet, and even then you’re likely to know of the character. Peter Falk played the unique, polite and much smarter than he appeared detective from 1968 until 1978. It wasn’t so much an ongoing TV series, but rather a series of TV movie specials.  The longest seasons were 2 and 3, with 8 episodes each.  It was revived in 1989, for more TV movies and specials until 2003. The people who worked on it were a real who-is-who of Hollywood. Steven Spielberg directed the first regular episode in 1971. Robert Culp, Patrick McGoohan, William Shatner, John Cassavetes, Mickey Spillane, Richard Kiley and George Hamilto are only a minor sampling of guest stars. Falk’s Columbo quickly became one of the most iconic sleuths in fiction, ranking with Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. In parallel, he continued to make movies (preferring smaller, independent movies) and act on the stage.

After a series of dental operations in 2007, Peter Falk rapidly declined into dementia and Alzheimer’s.

This is the point where I usually explain what the person whose obit I wrote here meant to me. In this particular case, I don’t feel up to it.

I mean, this is Columbo we’re talking about, you know. If you didn’t love Columbo, that’s proof that you don’t have a soul.

24. June 2011

RIP Gene Colan

Born September 21, 1926 in New York, died June 23, 2011 (aged 84), after a broken hip and complications from a liver disease.

Gene Colan studied art at the Art Students League of New York and began working in comics in 1944, drawing for Fiction House’s Wing Comics. He joined the US armed forces just in time for the end of the war, but spent time serving with the US occupation forces in the Philippines, where he rose to the rank of corporal and drew for the Manila Times. Upon his return in 1946, he produced a short story, took it to Timely Comics and was hired on the spot, where he worked as a staff artist until Timely laid off almost all their staff in 1948. Colan turned to freelancing, especially for the company that would become DC Comics.

Upon the beginning of the Silver Age in the 1960s, Colan quickly established himself as one of the greatest artists working in American comics. He worked on Sub-Mariner, Captain America, Iron Man and most notably Daredevil.

With Daredevil as his signature superhero work, he became something of a household name when he teamed up with writer Marv Wolfman on the horror series The Tomb of Dracula, a book that he had actively lobbied to be assigned to. His dark, moodily-brooding pencils that were complimented by the work of inker Tom Palmer were probably a greater factor in the book’s success than Marv Wolfman’s inspired writing.

In the 1980s, he had a falling out with Marvel Comics and instead worked more for DC Comics, on books like Batman, Night Force or Wonder Woman.

He quite literally kept working until the end.

Colan was a multiple awards winner, like the Shazam Award (1974), the Eagle Award (1977, 1979), the Sparky Award (2008) and the Sergio Award (2009). He was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame in 2005.

Back in the Silver Age, Colan had his very own style. It was a dark, shadowy and moody style. Personally, I always felt that he worked on some books where his style didn’t mesh (Captain America, for example), but on the right books (Daredevil, Tomb of Dracula, Night Force, Nathaniel Dusk) it was really breathtaking. Colan is one of those few American comic artists whose work actually looks better when it’s stipped of the coloring, as you can easily see if you look at Marvel’s Essential Tomb of Dracula collections. He was one of the first artists who could make me excited for a new comics series: the only reason why I eagerly anticipated the coming of DC’s Night Force back in 1982, or that Nathaniel Dusk noir miniseries (1984) by a writer I didn’t know, were because it had Colan art, and he wasn’t doing superheroes.

In that regard, yes, it was funny: I was very much a superhero reader at the time, but I always felt that Colan was wasted on superheroes. His style was wrong for it, it was too different, too unique.  It was, in a word, distinctive, and by all accounts he struggled against the pressure from his higher-ups in order to keep it distinctive, rather than to conform to a house style or some momentary fashion. That alone should earn him respect and accolades. Of course, it helps that he was one of the best comics artists ever. His visual storytelling skills, his moody, shadowy and atmospheric style set him apart from most of his peers, and seriously, anyone who wants to work as a comic book artist should look at his work and learn from it.

Will he be missed? By those who knew him, certainly. I haven’t had the privilege, but I’m told he was one of the nicest people in the business. By the rest of us, his readers? Well, we still have the comics he drew to re-read and appreciate, and to make us thankful for everything he had to give to us.

21. June 2011

Review: Green Lantern

USA 2011. Directed by Martin Campbell. Starring Ryan Reynolds, Peter Sarsgaard, Mark Strong, Blake Lively. Runtime: 105 Minutes

After being freed from his prison, the entity known as Parallax strikes against the Green Lantern Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). Abin Sur escapes, severely wounded, to Earth, where his power ring picks test pilot Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) as Abin Sur’s successor. After a brief stint on the Lantern HQ planet Oa for training, Hal decides that he isn’t cut out to be a member of the Green Lantern Corps and returns to Earth.

Meanwhile, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is infected with a particle of Parallax energy and begins to metamorphose into a superbeing with incredible mental powers. Which he promptly uses to get back and people who he believes wronged him – such as his father (Tim Robbins). As Hal takes on Hector, Parallax notices the fight and decides that Earth will make a nice snack before attacking Oa. Hal takes off to Oa to ask for the Corps’s help, but since the Corps just got their butts kicked by Parallax, they are too afraid to commit. So Hal has to fight Parallax by himself.

I’ll readily admit that after the reviews I’ve seen, I went into Green Lantern thinking, “Please don’t suck, please don’t suck.” Perhaps because of my low expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.

That doesn’t mean the movie has no problems. It has plenty of them. It also has a charm, however, that makes up for several of those problems.

The main problem is that it’s too ambitious. Green Lantern is three very good superhero movies compressed into one: Hal coming into his own as a Green Lantern, Hal fighting Hector Hammond, Hal fighting Parallax. If the creators had focused on one of these story arcs, they could have made one hell of a movie. Perhaps the one thing that almost made me cry was seeing the glimmer of Hector Hammond’s potential being unfulfilled. The way Sarsgaard played the character hinted at the tragic and almost sympathetic villain character that could have been if the movie had given the character enough time to be developed. The training arc on Oa was a GL reader’s proverbial wet dream, or would have been if it hadn’t been so short. The menace of Parallax would have been far more threatening if the monster had been on the screen for more than the (felt) ten minutes of screentime that it had.

In that regard, Green Lantern is the poster boy for missed opportunities. The poster boy for “less is more.” Less would have provided the chance to focus and develop aspects of the story and the mythology.

That doesn’t mean that Green Lantern is a hopeless case. Sure, some things don’t make sense, and I hope that there will be a director’s cut with deleted scenes that will fix that. Some other things make no real-world sense, but they make superhero-logic sense, so I’m willing to suspend my disbelief for that.

But the cast is charming, Sarsgaard is having fun, and the visuals…

… are spectacular. The visuals are what really sells this movie. Alien vistas, the entire Green Lantern corps in incredible detail. The energy constructs are cool and sometimes funny.

And Green Lantern is the first 3D movie that I’ve seen where the 3D actually works and enhances the film. (Well, except maybe for Tron: Legacy.)

So… what’s the verdict? Green Lantern fails completely in aspects of story and writing. The actors fight valiantly against a script that doesn’t give them the opportunity to develop their characters. But the visuals are cosmically spectacular, as they should be, and the entire film has something of a retro charm that in some places reminded me of those old Richard Donner Superman movies. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, but I can easily see how, if my mood hadn’t been as fine as it was, the faults might have glared more at me.  It’s the proverbial popcorn movie. Therefore, I can’t in good conscience give anything but

Verdict: neutral.

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